20th Century Women quad poster

I recently watched 20th Century Women, a poignant film set in California at the tail-end of the 1970s. I would definitely recommend it as it’s beautifully written and directed by Mike Mills – the man behind videos for everyone from Yoko Ono to Air, who even named a song after him on Talkie Walkie. There’s also a great ensemble cast that includes Annette Bening, Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon), Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant) and Greta Gerwig, once dubbed ‘the Meryl Streep of Mumblecore’ although Gerwig has appeared in a lot more good films than Streep has managed in recent years.

Come to think of it so have Bening, Fanning and Crudup.

Bening is particularly strong here as Dorothea, obsessively overanalyzing everything and obsessively smoking too – to the extent that Don Draper might even believe she should cut down. She’s sarcastic but supportive; anti-authoritarian but keen to daily check her stocks and shares. She owns a sprawling and messy house that sometimes resembles a mini commune – she has given a home to budding photographer Abbie, who is fighting cervical cancer and who dyed her hair red after seeing The Man Who Fell to Earth, William a hippy handyman and, at nights, Julie, who Dorothea’s fifteen year old son Jamie fixates on.

Together these five central characters form a kind of makeshift family.

Dorothea gave birth to Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) late in life and as he likes to points out ‘she was raised during the depression’ as if this was an entirely different world.

As ancient as she is, though, Dorothea retains an open mind and investigates a punkish local club and evaluates her feelings about bands like The Raincoats. She attempts to make sense of young people and the ways they have changed since she was a girl although Jamie, Julie and Abbie often remain a mystery to her – just as I don’t get teenagers of today getting excited about a ringtone or the latest Xbox release – she’s 55 (the age I am now) in 1979, while the Julie character is seventeen (the age I was then).

Here are her thoughts on hearing The Raincoats for the first time:

Dorothea: They’re not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling, and they don’t have any skill, and they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?’

Actually one of the things I think I like about The Raincoats is the clash within their ranks of the musically accomplished (violinist Vicky Aspinall had been playing since she was five and had a classical training) with the intuitive (the rest of the band).

The Raincoats have always been a band that people tend to love or hate. Danny Baker utterly slated them after seeing them play live early in their career; Kurt Cobain adored them and when, in late 1993, the band’s three studio albums were re-released, he happily agreed to supply some liner notes.

Like The Raincoats, 20th Century Women also split opinions. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘exasperatingly supercilious and smug – unfocused, self-consciously cute, nostalgic and empathetic, but never properly funny’.

Ouch.

Bradshaw isn’t a fan of anything indie and quirky and I while I struggle myself with uber kooky efforts like Napoleon Dynamite and Eagle vs Shark, I obviously found the film far more enjoyable than he did and while Bradshaw detested the stills, intertitles and archive footage that punctuate the movie I thought their use was often inspired. We see stills of Debbie Harry and Humphrey Bogart, typographic quotes from Judy Blume and Susan Lydon, we see Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech and even a little sequence from Koyaanisqatsi.

There are also multiple-narrative voiceovers, usually rotating between mother and son but with each of the five main characters contributing.

From the spring of 1979 and released (almost inevitably) on Rough Trade, this is The Raincoats and Fairytale In The Supermarket:


Just like a recent and similarly themed film, 2015’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, this has a fantastic soundtrack. No Television, T.Rex or the Dwight Twilley Band but Neu! and Suicide, Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Buzzcocks. I never could have guessed that Why Can’t I Touch It? would play over the end credits of a film nominated for two Golden Globes and an Oscar.

Amazingly enough Roger Neill’s score – utilising early synths of the period with a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer to the fore – failed to garner even a nod from the Academy. Slant even went as far as to decry it as ‘ambient music of the yoga-clinic waiting-room variety’.

Me? I reckon it is one of the very best scores I have heard since the end of the 20th century – yeah, that good, full with the kind of wonderful ambient washes that Eno can only dream about nowadays.

And speaking of Brian Eno, here’s another track from the soundtrack, co-written by Bowie, Eno and Carlos Alomar. If The Raincoats split opinions, Bowie as much as just about any artist living or dead unites the musical tastes of Joe Public. Here he is with DJ from his 1979 album Lodger:


For more on The Raincoats, click here.

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